Traditions drawn from the unique Donald Ross course at Monroe Golf Club are now matched with equal elegance inside its clubhouse.
Many clubs honor their connections to legendary golf course architects by naming rooms in their clubhouses for them. But these sometimes prove to be gestures made in name only, with little carried through from outside to inside to evoke the traditions and sustain the special qualities that the architect first helped to create for the property.
That certainly isn’t the case, though, at Monroe Golf Club in Pittsford, N.Y., just outside of Rochester. The club, founded in 1923, has a Donald Ross Dining Room that now showcases an elegant food-and-beverage program as a fitting complement to a jewel of a golf course, and an accomplished golf program, that have distinguished the club from its earliest days.
A Region Rich in Ross
The Rochester area has long stood out in the golf world among Northern cities because of its abundance of Ross-designed courses—five in all, including Oak Hill Country Club, which will host the 2013 PGA Championship. Within this cluster, Monroe’s course has enjoyed a special distinction, thanks to especially sandy soil that provides optimal drainage and playability for a classic layout that prominently features Ross’ signature contouring and bunkering (110 traps).
Monroe Golf Club
“The way this course drains is a real blessing,” says Grounds Superintendent Matt Delly while conducting a tour as he eagerly plunges probes into the ground to bring up samples of the unusually granular earth that extends well beneath the 150 acres of former farmland Ross was paid $5,500 to reshape.
Delly is just the fifth superintendent in the club’s 90-year history, starting with Jim Connaughton, a former construction foreman for Ross who supervised the course for its first 35 years. Delly was thrust into the role at a critical time, after the tragic death in 2007 of his predecessor, Mark Hughes, and while a master-planned restoration of the course under the direction of Gil Hanse (now designing the course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) was well underway.
Delly was less than 10 years out of turf school at the time he took the position, with only two years of experience as a head superintendent (at The Country Club of Syracuse). But he had worked at Monroe (under Hughes’ predecessor, Patrick Gertner) for many summers while in high school, and then had returned in 2006 to be Hughes’ assistant. After Hughes drowned in a swimming accident, Monroe was able to keep its restoration on course thanks to the bench strength represented by Delly, a former All-American small-college quarterback.
“We’re lucky we had original blueprints for all 18 greens as well as the original Ross drawings to follow [for the restoration],” Delly says. “From those documents, it was clear that changes made over the years, primarily from tree plantings and mowing practices that had shrunk the greens, had led to a state of decline that threatened turf quality, created safety issues and removed architectural features that made the course special.
“[The restoration] dug back to the native soils, restored the original contours of the natural, rolling terrain, and gutted and rebuilt all of the bunkers to their original design,” Delly says. “And we’re continuing to selectively manage trees to help us put back even more of the original character.
“Last year, we took out an oak that had grown to 70 feet just 10 yards from a green. It was a beautiful tree, but in the wrong spot, and it had become exactly the type of project that justifies [tree removal], because it was dropping acorns in bunkers and robbing the grass of nutrients. After we took it out, we were able to grow the green back out to its original size and shape.
“With those kind of projects, we keep getting closer to putting this beautiful piece of property back to how Ross laid it out,” Delly says. “We can tell we’re doing the right thing not only by how we keep climbing up the lists [of top course ratings], but just as importantly, by how members are enjoying the course. We’ve actually taken out significant lengths of cart paths because so many more people are now walking the course—there can’t be too many clubs saying that right now.”
The Monroe membership’s newfound zest for enjoying their lovingly restored course through unspoiled walks has actually created a new challenge for the club’s golf department—finding room to store a fleet of wheeled club caddies that has swelled to over 250. But that is a “problem” that Jim Mrva, PGA, Monroe’s Head Golf Professional since 1983, has been glad to see develop. More people walking the course fits well with what Mrva, a Master Professional and the 2010 PGA Golf Professional of the Year, describes as a prevailing theme of “moving forward by looking backward” that he has tried to emphasize since becoming Monroe’s fourth head pro in 1983 (the first was legendary Scottish pro Johnny Walker).
Further evidence of how Mrva has helped Monroe GC gain distinction by embracing touches of the past can be found in the wrap-around porch with rocking chairs, and antique decorations, including vintage skis and a canoe, that he incorporated into the design of the 4,000-sq.-ft. pro shop that opened in 1992, but still looks fresh and inviting 20 years later.
Mrva has also worked with club members to direct the continued growth and success of the Monroe Invitational Championship (MIC), one of the oldest amateur tournaments in the U.S. Dating to 1937 and held each year in early June, the MIC surged to new prominence in the late 1980s when the club made a concerted effort to attract top players by providing housing at members’ homes and adding other amenities to the already strong pull of the chance to play the Ross course. It worked: Over the last 25 years, the MIC has consistently drawn leading college and amateur players, with the list of past tournament champions including now-touring pros such as Dustin Johnson, Chris DiMarco and Jeff Sluman; the full participant roster has also included names like Jim Furyk, Lucas Glover, Ben Curtis and Tiger Woods.
Monroe GC has also been out in front of the trend to encourage more players to enjoy golf at a leisurely place through its innovative, Ross-inspired and Gil Hanse-designed four-hole, par-three short course. The course, which opened in 2003, features regulation-sized greens, bentgrass fairways and nine bunkers. It is open to all members from dusk to dawn, with no greens fees.
The short course has served as an excellent venue for practice and instruction, Mrva says. It has also encouraged some of the club’s social members to ease into the game, he adds, and made it possible for senior members who now find it challenging to get around the full course to be able to continue to enjoy the game. Delly, whose staff mows the short course daily and keeps the greens rolling at 10+ readings, says it’s not uncommon to see players, especially women, make two or three circuits around the four holes.
The Monroe golf staff is also making it easier for members to work playing the main Ross course into their schedules. A popular Thursday night nine-hole men’s league that runs from mid-May into September has attracted over 100 participants, Mrva reports. The pairings that are made up for the league, plus barbecues on the lawn held periodically during the season, have proved to be a good social mixer for bringing members together who might not otherwise meet, he says. Women also have a variety of options, including nine and 18-hole groups that play on weekday mornings, a twilight golf league on Wednesday evenings, and an interclub league.
“Moving forward by looking backward” also means helping junior players develop an appreciation for the game and its traditions—and here, too, the staff has made some impressive strides to try to go beyond what Mrva calls “living in the bubble” of typical golf circles. He is particularly excited about recent efforts to combine the SNAG (Starting New at Golf) beginners’ system with Monroe’s short course as a way to introduce youth from Rochester-area YMCAs and Boys Clubs to the game.
“It’s been an eye-opener,” Mrva says of the potential he’s seen from events held at the club for those groups, as well as programs coordinated with The First Tee of Rochester. “The families involved just with the Ys represent over 120,000 people. Bringing groups out here to be with our pros has definitely created a spark both with kids, and their parents, I think, and piqued their interest in finding ways to continue to play. Whether that ends up being at public or private facilities really doesn’t matter, if we can get new people into the game and broaden its reach.”
Responding to the Alarm
While it is still called a golf club, and while its golf course, programs and golf leadership remain the most prominent faces of Monroe GC, the club has taken significant steps in recent years to enhance its facilities and operations to create a more well-rounded profile and to better position itself for the future.
Thomas Cimino, the club’s Immediate Past President, says a consultant gave Monroe’s Board a wake-up call even before the recession created new urgencies, by presenting “facts of life” to show that only about half the number of private clubs in 2005 would still exist in 2015—and that making the cut would be a case of “survival of the fittest.”
The Monroe Board took this message to heart and decided that the club’s future would hinge on a multi-pronged strategy: 1) continue to enhance its golf course and golf programs to retain Top 100 status; 2) invest in other club amenities by making long-term commitments to annual capital improvement projects that rotate to touch the clubhouse, pool, tennis courts or other facilities, in addition to golf-related needs (most recently, the fitness room and kitchen have been renovated); and 3) entrust the club’s operation to professional management.
Part three led to the arrival in 2006 of Colin Simpson, CCM, as Monroe’s Chief Operating Officer. Simpson addressed other key needs by bringing in Pamela Werner, formerly with the Century Golf management company, as Controller/Director of Human Resources, and Frank Mirabile, CEC, as Monroe’s new Executive Chef (see “Serious Players,” C&RB, February 2011).
Renewed emphasis on food-and-beverage was a key part of the long-term strategy, says Cimino. “Our banquet side was bringing in significant revenues, and we weren’t even paying that much attention to it,” he says. “With more professional management, we saw that we could tighten up our buying and inventory practices, generate wonderful margins and positive cash flow, and cover up a lot of sins.”
Monroe’s F&B operation got another huge boost when Mirabile submitted a winning entry to a kitchen equipment manufacturer’s “dream suite” competition (see “Cooking Up a Dream,” C&RB, March 2011). That led to the much-needed kitchen overhaul, which, in addition to new efficiencies, has also helped the club enhance its menus. Mirabile’s department, which includes a pastry chef and in-house bakery, now makes innovative use of special equipment contained in the suite, such as drop-in sous vide wells and a flat plancha grill.
Simpson’s status as a Sommelier has also helped to distinguish Monroe’s fine-dining program, and the F&B team has also steadily raised service standards through a training program, now bolstered by a comprehensive manual, designed to “lead to more focus and sense of purpose” for the entire culinary operation, Simpson says.
Monroe’s success in simultaneously identifying, and addressing, all of its strategic initiatives has helped the club emerge from the recession not only as a survivor, but with renewed confidence about its future direction. “We lost members who were historically here primarily for golf,” says Cimino, “but we were able to restore our [membership] numbers, and actually improve on them, within a year, and emerge from it all much less top-heavy in terms of age distribution. We’re still a very golf-oriented club, but we also know that appealing to families through many other amenities is the key to the future—and we think we’re well-positioned for that now.”